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What’s in a Frame?

Over twenty years, drawing insights from the social sciences and social movements, the FrameWorks Institute has created a list of a dozen significant framing decisions, or “frame elements.”
July 16, 2020

What’s in a Frame?

A frame is a guide. It directs people where to look, but more importantly, helps them interpret what they see. Every message—whether written, spoken, illustrated, or signed—is presented through a frame of some kind. Simply put, every communication is framed.

Frames are constructed like mosaics, bit by bit through the many decisions communicators make: how to introduce a topic, what to emphasize or leave out, whether and how to explain. As social advocates, our framing choices have the power to influence people’s understanding of the issues we care deeply about—and to shape the public response. To advance social change, we need to make these choices wisely and purposefully.

Over twenty years, drawing insights from the social sciences and social movements, the FrameWorks Institute has created a list of a dozen significant framing decisions, or “frame elements.” Each frame element affects how people understand, interpret, and respond to social issues. By learning more about these frame elements and what they do, and using them when we craft communications, we can equip ourselves to lead more productive public conversations.

CONTEXT sets the scene. It illuminates—or, by omission, obscures—the environmental conditions and social factors that give meaning to people’s actions and experiences. By shedding light on the context that surrounds individuals, communicators can bring the bigger picture into view, allowing people to see how improving policies and restructuring systems, rather than just altering behaviors, is needed to create social change.

EXPLANATORY CHAINS help people connect the dots. Each one offers a sequence of ideas, or series of steps in a process, that clearly illustrate links between the underlying causes of social ills and their visible symptoms. Explanatory chains use causal transition phrases (like, “which leads to…” or “because of…”) to close gaps that people might otherwise fill in with their own assumptions about why things are the way they are.

EXPLANATORY EXAMPLES depict particular instances within a general pattern, or specific cases that represent a broader trend. They offer detailed real-world scenarios (or intricately imagined future-world ones) that make the possibility of change more relatable and plain to see. Take, for instance, education advocates who claim that public programs can meaningfully support students’ science learning beyond the classroom. Their communications are significantly strengthened by explanatory examples that paint a vivid picture—say, of kids planting vegetables in a community garden or visiting a space museum—to illustrate the point.

EXPLANATORY METAPHORS help people think about an abstract, unfamiliar, or misunderstood system or process by comparing it to something familiar and concrete. Metaphors bring people’s everyday knowledge to the task of rethinking complex social issues.

MESSENGERS are the voices that share an idea. They can be people or institutions. Messengers are particularly effective in framing an issue when their perspectives are viewed as trustworthy, reliable, and free of bias.

NARRATIVE refers to a collection of stories that all follow a similar arc. Each story includes a beginning, middle, and end, and (whether stated or implied) a recurring set of characters, scenery, and plot. Together, with repetition and over time, a collection of related stories—a narrative—can become embedded in culture: serving as a template for new stories and advancing a world view.

NUMBERS quantify some aspect of an issue. They can help explain the size and scope of a challenge, or the scale of response that is necessary. Numbers are attention-getters that condense a lot of information into a small space, so they are an especially potent frame element. Unfortunately, they’re also extremely susceptible to misinterpretation. For this reason, numbers work best when used to reinforce a message explicitly stated in words, rather than left to stand alone.

ORDER refers to the sequence of components in a message. It involves choosing what goes earlier in a communication and what goes later on. Order taps the power of priming: the way our response to information is shaped by what we encountered just before it.

SOLUTIONS are proven or promising approaches to improving a situation. Solutions boost people’s sense of “can-do.” By consistently highlighting policy-level solutions, we can point people to collective, public responses to social challenges.

TONE refers to the way a communication conveys or elicits emotion. For ideas to reach a broad audience and gain mainstream traction, it helps to adopt an aspirational, rather than argumentative or judgemental, tone—one that conveys that the message is for ‘everyone,’ not just those who already share the expressed point of view.

VALUES are cherished ideals or deep-seated principles, which are widely shared across the culture. They invite civic thinking about social issues—helping us all see why we should care about them, and what’s at stake. Values are especially effective tools for introducing a topic because they prime people to adopt a “common good” mindset from the start, and then keep an open mind about the message that follows.

VISUALS are images: photographs, illustrations, animations, and the like. They work hand-in-hand with other frame elements, such as context and tone. Communicators often literally widen the frame of a shot to provide a more expansive view, and select images that are explanatory rather than hyper-emotional. It’s important to choose visuals that are consistent with the overall framing strategy.